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Learning center: case study for creating an active library: in many cases, a modern, functional library can be created through a budget-sensitive renovation within an existing space.

LIBRARIES TODAY ARE MORE THAN REPOSITORIES for books and quiet study. They are active community spaces that encourage interaction and collaborative learning, showcase the rise of new technologies, and adapt to the needs of their patrons. Sometimes, creating a library to embrace these changes requires constructing a new building or making major modifications to an existing facility. But in many cases, a modern, functional library can be created through a budget-sensitive renovation within an existing space.


The renovation of the Fred L. Mathews Library at Southwestern Michigan College began with a vision to make the space more attractive to students and more conducive to collaborative learning. The designers worked with the college administration, library director, and Teaching & Learning Center (TLC) staff to translate that vision into reality while adhering to the allotted budget.

The administration desired a more inviting environment, more spaces for student interaction and group study, and updated finishes and furniture. The library director wanted to increase staff efficiency and reduce collection size. And the TLC staff needed to increase their footprint to accommodate the consolidation of another TLC relocated from a different campus building while providing additional tutoring and writing center services to students.

Accomplishing these tasks required balancing the needs and goals of each group, making budget-sensitive decisions, and designing in collaboration with the various staff members. The renovation brought the college's vision to life and achieved its goals within the existing space.


A key to the success of the renovation was not only accepting that learning creates noise but also using that as a guide in the space planning. The existing 1960s-era layout featured the traditional hushed library space filled with tall book stacks. Louder group study activities were relegated to closed, windowless rooms. The new concept prominently features the active, collaborative spaces while tucking more private study spaces into quiet areas near the perimeter.

The central, high-ceiling area of the library has a concierge-style circulation and information desk within view of the main entry (see figures 1 and 2). Casual seating groups and tables with chairs are clustered around the space, providing space for informal study groups, discussions, and student socializing (see figures 3 and 4). The group study rooms are located along one wall at the far end of the library, away from the activity and noise of the main area. Constructed with systems furniture partitions with full-glass panels, these rooms provide the necessary acoustic privacy without feeling claustrophobic. A quiet study room with individual carrels is located at the exterior windows and is enclosed with glass partitions (see figure 5). This maintains visibility and access to natural light, creating a comfortable, quiet setting for private studying.

This concept of active collaboration and quiet seclusion continues in the TLC, where students come for study groups, tutoring, and access to computers. Tables and chairs provide flexibility for a variety of group sizes as well as one-on-one tutoring with power and Wi-Fi for laptop use. Computers line the perimeter of this area (see figure 6). An adjacent room is partitioned off from the main space, becoming a quiet haven for private tutoring and the Writing Center.


While the renovated library houses many functions and caters to the various needs of students, it also now offers a more welcoming environment. This was accomplished through careful space planning, focused selection of architectural and furniture elements, and a warm color palette.

A major factor allowing for the renovation was the reduction of the collection size. Colleen Welsch, director of library services, notes that "libraries should be weeding their collections on an annual basis to ensure our offerings are current and in good shape." The long-overdue process of sorting and culling at the Mathews Library resulted in the removal of more than 3,500 books. That, along with a more efficient space plan, provided the floor area necessary for the new collaborative learning spaces, study rooms, and expanded TLC.

Relocating the circulation/information desk to the center of the main space provides ease of access for students and visitors. This placement, along with relocating the low book stacks near the desk, realigning the tall stacks in perimeter areas with sight lines from the desk, and using full-height glass for the new partitions, allows staff to see and monitor all areas of the library from the central desk. These design features also contribute to the overall feeling of openness.


Achieving these benefits and completing the renovation did not come without its challenges. The college had a minimal budget and a limited time frame in which to perform the work. Class scheduling and the need for students to be able to use the library and its many functions required college staff, designers, contractors, and suppliers to work together to coordinate the renovation activities in a way that would reduce downtime by completing the project over the course of a few weeks during the summer break.

Funding came from revenues from increased enrollment, so the amount allocated to the project was fixed. The goal of the college administration was to make the greatest possible impact on function and aesthetics within the given budget. Several decisions and strategies allowed the college and design team to get the most "bang for the buck."

The existing space was fully utilized, and thoughtful planning meant that there were no walls removed, limiting demolition and construction tasks to flooring and finishes. Not only did this save on material expense and timing, but it also reduced the number of construction trades needed onsite. Where desired, new rooms or divisions of space were created through the use of demountable partitions that will also allow for flexibility and adaptability to meet the library's future needs.

Furnishings can be the majority of the expense in an interior renovation, but reuse of existing furniture and library fixtures allowed the college to keep these costs to a minimum. A particular savings was the reuse of the existing book stacks, replacing only the end panels for an updated appearance.

The use of standard, modular systems furniture to create workstations, divide spaces, and form the circulation desk provided savings versus site-built construction or custom millwork. Together these various cost-reducing strategies kept the project within the allotted budget and afforded the college the ability to accomplish the desired goals of the renovation.


The effects of the renovation are apparent in the increased usage of all library services in the year since the project was completed. General foot traffic has increased to more than 450 people daily, and circulation has increased 22 percent per capita. The faculty are also singing the praises of the reinvigorated library and encouraging their students to use its resources. Presentations to classes teaching use of the online catalog and databases and instructing students how to do research have risen 53 percent.

Beyond statistics, the library's newfound popularity is evident in its liveliness. "We are the primary place on campus for study groups to meet," said Welsch, adding that the new study rooms are never empty. She says that students come and go throughout the day. "We are their lounge, study, social, or even lunch space." Having met--and exceeded--the expectations of the administration and staff, the Mathews Library renovation complements the college's mission of providing high-quality education and a total college life experience.


PHILIP DEANGELIS, ASSOC. AIA, LEED AP, is an architectural designer at Arkos Design in Niles, Michigan. He has worked with the firm for more than five years, and his experience includes new construction as well as major renovations, including many interior renovations for higher education clients. He is involved with all phases of design from space planning to construction documents and construction administration.

MICHELLE NEIMAN-DESCHAAF, IIDA, LEED AP, is a certified interior designer at Arkos Design in Niles, Michigan. She has over 25 years of experience working with corporate, retail, educational, municipal, and institutional clients in interior design as well as in the furnishings industry. As a project manager she leads clients from concept through design and construction administration.
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Title Annotation:PLANNING STORY
Author:DeAngelis, Philip; Neiman-Deschaaf, Michelle
Publication:Planning for Higher Education
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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